Mexico has a wealth of tourist attractions, primarily revolving around Native civilizations such as the Aztecs and the Maya, and also Mexico’s fabulous beaches. The following is my list of favorites. After reading the descriptions, check out my photo album of these sights, coming soon.
1. Mexico City
Mexico City, the sprawling capital of Mexico and one of the largest cities in the world, is built over the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, which stood on a island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. After the conquest of the city by Hernan Cortes in 1519, it was destroyed, the lake filled in and a Spanish city was begun on the site. It greatest temple, Templo Mayor, is currently being excavated about a block away from the center of Mexico City’s main square, Plaza de la Constitucion, better known as the Zocalo.
The excavation and associated museum is now a major attraction in the city because of its historical significance. Probably the most important artifact discovered in the ruins is the Coyolxauhqui, a carved, round stone which depicts the Moon Goddess, dismembered. Also of interest are two statues, called the Eagle Knights because of their feathered costumes.
This historic heart of modern Mexico City is surrounded by some of its most famous and important structures. The Palacio Nacional is certainly an imposing edifice, but it is best known for its murals, painted by one of Mexico’s most famous muralists, Diego Rivera. They illustrate his impressions of Mexico’s turbulent (to say the least) history. They are found above the main stairway and along the walls of the courtyard.
The Catedral Metropolitana, the largest cathedral in all of Latin America, is a treasure of art and architecture. Because it took close to three centuries to complete, it is a mixture of architectural styles. Particularly noteworthy are the Altar de los Reyes and the Choir, with its intricate wood-carving and two beautiful organs.
Outside the historic center of the city are several sights which are also must-sees for any visitor. In the Alameda District, just west of the Zocalo, the Casa de los Azulejos (House of Tiles) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes are both architectural gems.
Another noteworthy attraction, found in the northern part of the city, is the Basilica de Guadalupe, probably the most important pilgrimage site in the Americas. This entire complex of several churches and chapels is a shrine to commemorate the appearance of the Virgin Mary to Juan Diego in 1531. The anniversary of this event, December 12th, draws thousands of people, both here and to churches throughout Mexico, to celebrate and perform other acts of veneration.
Further to the west, connected to the city center by the Paseo de la Reforma with its elegant statues, is the famous Bosque de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Park), one of the oldest parks in the Americas, whose 2100 acres are a favorite gathering place for locals and tourists alike, especially on Sundays. Within the park, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia has a world-famous collection of relics from the ancient cultures of the Americas.
The Zona Rosa, the area immediately south of the Paseo de la Reforma is popular because of its many restaurants, shops and markets.
A great excursion is a short 20 kilometers (14 miles) south of Mexico City in the town of Xochimilco. Here are the last remaining Floating Gardens (Chinampas), which used to be quite common in the lakes around the city. Chinampas are rectangular floats, similar to barges, which are covered with a compost-like soil and planted with various crops or other plants. Natives used to steer these contraptions to the market to sell their produce. Now they are basically a curiosity designed to attract both locals and tourists to the area. Weekends are the best time to visit. The ideal way to participate is to rent a Trajinera, a flower-painted boat, and take part in the Floating Garden experience directly.
Another worthwhile excursion is a visit to the beautiful Colonial town of Puebla, 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Mexico City. This city is noted for the use of glazed tiles (Talavera) to decorate its buildings. They can be found on the domes of the churches and on the walls of the houses.
Puebla’s Cathedral, one of Mexico’s oldest, has the highest towers in the country at 69 meters (226 feet). Check out the Church of Santo Domingo whose Rosary Chapel is a gold-leaf masterpiece. The main square (Zocalo) of the city has beautiful gardens and is lined with arcades. It also contain the interesting Fuente de San Miguel (St Michael’s Fountain).
2. Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza, the “City of the Water Wizards”, is probably the best-preserved of the ancient Mayan sites in all of Mexico. Archaeologists think the city may have been home to 35,000 people at its zenith, from about 800 to 1100 AD. Walking into the site is awe-inspiring because of its scale.
The most impressive ruin is El Castillo, a huge pyramid dedicated to the Mayan god, Kukulcan, the local equivalent to Quetzlcoatl of the Aztecs. The pyramid is 24 meters (about 75 feet) tall. Its four sides are stairways, each with 91 steps, making a total of 365 steps in all, the number of days in the Mayan year (the Mayan culture was obsessed with time and there are many examples of time related symbols on the site). The stairways rise at a 45o angle and, until recently, could be climbed by the fit and courageous. This practice was ceased in late 2006. Authorities cited numerous accidents, damage to the structure and graffiti for their change of heart.
Another structure on the premises is the Observatory (El Caracol) which was obviously used for astronomical purposes. The slits in the walls are associated with the positions of key stars on certain, important dates of the year.
The Ball Court is the largest in all of Mesoamerica with a length of about 170 meters (550 feet). The games that were played were more ceremonial and much more serious than sport, and there is evidence that the losers were decapitated.
The Temple of the Warriors is perched on a small pyramid and is noteworthy for its snake-like columns and sculptures of Chac, the Mayan god of rain and lightening, and Kukulcan.
North of the Platform of Venus is a path which leads to the Sacred Cenote (Cenote means “well”). This well, however, was not used as a source of water, but had a more sinister purpose. Human sacrifices occurred here. Chosen individuals were thrown into the well to drown.
One of the best places to stay in the region is Cancun, a beach resort on the northeastern tip of the Yucatan peninsula. What was originally a sleepy fishing village has been transformed into a mega-resort complex with all the associated services. The beaches themselves are beautiful, white and sandy and the weather is almost always excellent. The majority of hotels and resorts are found along the spit of land called Isla Cancun or Zona Hotelera. Much of the shopping, another activity for which Cancun is famous, is found downtown.
In addition, there are myriad aquatic activities available as well as tours or transportation to various other attractions in the area. After all, this is the Mayan Riviera, the most important travel destination in all of Mexico.
Cancun is approximately 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Chichen Itza.
There are several other Mayan sites in the Yucatan which can also be conveniently visited from Cancun. Tulum, for instance, is only 81 miles (130 kilometers) away. Tulum is a late-Mayan city, dating to approximately 1200 to 1500 AD and is unusual in that it is the only Mayan site directly on the coast. As such, it has a special fascination because of its great views over the Caribbean.
Tulum is basically a walled fortress and some of its structures were, no doubt, lookout posts. The site is dominated by El Castillo, a temple on top of a pyramid. Also of note is the Temple of the Frescoes, which was probably an astronomical observatory.
Approximately 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Mexico City lie the ruins of probably the most famous and most visited reminder of pre-Columbian culture in the Americas. Teotihuacan was a city which was probably founded in 200 BC, by a culture which archaeologists know very little about. The civilization here lasted till about 650 AD when it was mysteriously abandoned. It was later given its Aztec name and venerated by that culture, although they allowed the area to be taken over by vegetation and effectively buried.
Excavations of the site began in 1864 and still continue. What visitors see today is probably only about 10% of the original city. To appreciate the scale and grandeur of the ruins requires considerable walking and climbing.
The highlight of any visit should include a stroll down the regal Avenue of the Dead, the main street of the complex. At one end of the avenue is the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, a shrine to the most important god of Mesoamerica, a plumed serpent who may have also been a ruler, depicted with white skin and beard, a lover of science and the arts.
At the other end of the avenue is the Pyramid of the Moon, which provides the best view of the entire complex for those willing to climb its stairs.
Near this pyramid is the Quetzalcoatl Palace Complex, a large group of buildings which exhibit interesting murals and carvings. It includes the Palace of the Jaguars.
The most imposing structure at Teotihuacan is undoubtedly the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world, which sits about halfway up the main avenue. Visitors may climb its 240+ stairs.
4. San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel de Allende is a Colonial treasure in the Heartland of Mexico, about 410 kilometers (230 miles) northwest of Mexico City (see #5 above). It was declared a National Monument by the Mexican president in 1926. It is famous today as the location of the Instituto Allende, which provides instruction in Art and Language to thousands of students from all over the world.
The citizenry became wealthy as a result of the discovery of silver to the west. Thus, there are many elegant mansions along the narrow, cobblestone streets. The city has also attracted many foreigners who, perhaps, came to the school and then liked the area so much that they stayed.
A walking tour of the city center should include at least the following attractions: La Parroquia is a church whose exterior façade was redone in a Neo-gothic mode; the Oratorio de San Felipe Neri contains 33 oil paintings which depict events in the life of St Philip Neri, a Florentine; Santa Casa de Loreto is an ornate side chapel of the Neri church; Iglesia de San Francisco has a Churrigueresque (a Spanish variation of Baroque) façade; El Charco del Ingenio, the city’s botanical garden; and El Jardin, the social gathering place and heart of the city in lieu of a grand square such as Mexico City’s Zocalo.
While in San Miguel de Allende, be sure to check out the view from El Mirador (The Lookout).
A wonderful side trip from San Miguel lies about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the west. The Colonial city of Guanajuato is perhaps the most beautiful “silver city” in Mexico and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Brightly-colored houses line the convoluted alleyways and cobblestone streets in this elegant city which lies in a gorge surrounded by mountains.
One of its attractions is the Callejon del Baso (Alley of the Kiss) which is so-named because the houses are so close together that they practically touch (ask about some of the local legends concerning this alleyway).
The historic center’s gathering place is the Jardin de la Union which plays host to concerts several nights per week at the bandstand.
One of the most beautiful buildings in the city is the Neo-classic Teatro Juarez with its pillars and statues.
In Guanajuato take the funicular to the top of the hill above the city. The statue of El Pipila marks the location of a fantastic view of the entire city and provides the best photo opportunity.
La Valenciana mine is 3 miles (5 kilometers) north of the city. Above the mine is the Templo de San Cayetano, perhaps the city’s most beautiful church, with its façade of pink limestone and its spectacular Baroque interior.
Palenque, whose name means “place of the sun’s daily death“, is dramatically set amidst rain forest in the very southern part of Mexico, near the border with Guatemala. Archaeologists think that the site may have been inhabited as long ago as 200 BC, although the height of Mayan presence here was between 600 and 800 AD.
As visitors enter, the first structure on the right is the Temple of the Skull, named for the animal skull which was found at its entrance. A bit further on the right is the Temple of the Inscriptions, 65 feet (21 meters) tall, named because of the numerous hieroglyphs inside. Excavations have found that this is the tomb of one of the important Mayan rulers, Pakal, whose reign lasted from 615-683 AD. Visitors are allowed to descend into the depths of the pyramid to view his sarcophagus with its beautifully carved lid showing the ruler falling into the underworld. The temple has nine tiers which represent the nine lords of the underworld in Mayan mythology.
Beyond this structure is the Palace with its exquisite stucco façade and its unusual four-tiered tower which probably served as an astronomical observatory. It is a large complex of courtyards, hallways, and rooms and even had indoor plumbing.
The Temple of the Jaguar, which has not been significantly excavated, is an example of the encroachment of the jungle and gives the visitor an idea of how this site must have appeared when first discovered.
The Temple of the Sun is noted for its elaborate friezes.
The above structures and quite a few others not mentioned are part of the Principal Group, which is the best preserved and most visited part of the archaeological site. Other areas of this vast complex can also be visited if time permits.
Oaxaca City, founded in 1529, is one of the best preserved of Mexico‘s Colonial cities and also the birthplace of one of Mexico’s most important historical figures, Benito Juarez, a reformer and President of the country. It has also been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. At its center is the Zocalo (Plaza de Armas) which is pedestrian-only and ringed with cafes. There are also wrought-iron benches to sit on and a bandstand where concerts are given fairly frequently.
Nearby is another square, Alameda de Leon which is popular because of its crafts market. It is also the location of the Cathedral and the Post Office, both significant architectural structures. Note the beautiful stone carvings on the Cathedral façade.
Other noteworthy sights in the city include the Iglesia de Santo Domingo whose interior dazzles with gold, and the Basilica de la Soledad which also sports a gilded interior to go with its Baroque façade.
Shoppers will love the bartering and haggling that goes on at the Mercado de Abastos, southwest of the city center, where an incredible variety of goods are sold, in particular, the famous, local, black and green pottery.
Just west of the city, on top of a 5,000 foot (1400 meter) mountain above Oaxaca Valley whose top was flattened to make room for the site, sits Monte Alban whose history dates to the Olmecs, around 500 BC, but is most famous as a Zapotec city of some 30,000 residents during its apex around 300 AD. The city was eventually annexed by the local Mixtecs in approximately 800 AD, who thought the site would make an appropriate burial ground.
Some of the notable structures on the site include Tomb 104, which, when opened in 1937, yielded human remains surrounded by various artifacts, Tomb 7 whose riches are on display in the Museo Regional de Oaxaca, and the Building of the Dancers with its naked figures representing various aspects of human life carved in its stones.
Travelers should be aware that, as of the writing of this book, Americans desiring to visit Oaxaca, are strongly cautioned since protest and unrest in the area has resulted in several deaths, recently.
Acapulco, the grandfather of Mexican beach resorts, is located on the western coast, about 400 kilometers (240 miles) southwest of Mexico City. It is world-famous for its cliff-divers who risk life and limb once during the day and several times in the evenings by catapulting themselves from a ledge 130 feet (43 meters) above the water. The dive must be timed with the incoming tide or they could hit bottom and be killed. These performances have been taking place since the 1930’s and have delighted millions of people.
The city of Acapulco is made up of two distinct sections. The Centro is the old part of town. It contains the Moorish, almost Byzantine Cathedral, with its onion domes reminiscent of Russian churches and the Fuerte de San Diego, built in the early 17th century, which is now a museum. The Old Town also contains Le Quebrada where the cliff-divers perform. Stroll the Malecon or seaside promenade with the locals in the evening.
The newer part of the city is known as “The Strip” and includes the area along La Costera Miguel Aleman, the roadway parallel with the beaches to the east of Old Town. It is lined with hotels and resorts.
The most well known of the numerous beaches is the Playa Condesa.
For those in Acapulco for several days who want to escape the beach and the sun for a day, an excursion to the Colonial city of Taxco de Alarcon might just be the thing to do. Taxco is the country’s major “Silver City”. As a matter of fact, the city is known the world over for its silver and silver craft. For shoppers interested in silver jewelry, this is the ultimate — hundreds of shops selling all sorts of varieties of silver jewelry at rock-bottom prices.
The town center merits exploration as well. The main attraction is the Iglesia de San Sebastian y Santa Prisca, a masterpiece of lavish Churrigueresque architecture which is located on the Zocalo, the Plaza Borda. It pale-pink exterior is richly decorated while its interior is gilded throughout and also contains several paintings by Miguel Cabrera, one of Mexico’s most important artists.
8. Copper Canyon
Copper Canyon, in the northwestern part of Mexico, has only recently been promoted as a tourist attraction, although this area, bigger by far than the Grand Canyon of the United States, is extremely remote. It is best accessed by train, on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway, one of the world’s great train rides, which traverses the northern part of the canyon area.
The train stops at all the major towns en route and visitors can arrange hikes or horseback rides into the canyon, at several of these towns, especially Creel. The canyons boast spectacular waterfalls and unusual rock formations.
The most breathtaking part of the train ride is the section from Creel to El Fuerte, a part of the trip where elevations change dramatically as does the vegetation and geology.
9. Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is one of a number of resort areas and villages along Mexico’s western coast, dubbed the Mexican Riviera. Puerto Vallarta lies on the Bay of Banderas, one of the largest and deepest in the Pacific Ocean. The downtown area, known as Veijo Vallarta, is quaint and a pleasure to walk along its cobblestone streets. Along the shoreline is the Malecon, a boardwalk where locals and tourists gather at all times of the day or night, to enjoy sunsets, ocean views, and to marvel at the numerous sculptures which dot the walkway. Of special note are the Seahorse statue and the stone arches of Los Arcos Amphitheater which have become symbols of the city. The most popular beach in town is Los Muertos (whether this name is derived from gold mining days when miners killed one another for the precious metal, or whether there was a cemetery in the area, no one really knows, although town officials have tried, unsuccessfully, for years to change the name) which is lined with outdoor cafes and bars.
A walking tour of the Old Town should definitely include the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, the dominant building of the city, whose “crown” towers over the other buildings. Note the intricate work in the interior. Stroll through Gringo Gulch which, nowadays, is famous for the tryst involving Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of the movie, Night of the Iguana. Liz’s home, Casa Kimberly, is connected to Richard Burton’s by a pink and white “love bridge”.
Another common tourist destination in the area is the Playa de Mismaloya, the beach where much of the movie was shot.
Guadalajara, Mexico is the second largest city in the country but has somehow managed to retain its charm and elegance. It has been called the “City of Roses” and is known as the birthplace of Mariachis, Tequila, and the Mexican Hat Dance. The city is extremely pleasant to walk because of the numerous plazas, fountains, and parks.
Visitors spend much of their time in the pedestrian-zone of nine blocks (the Plaza Tapatia) which extends from the Cathedral to the Instituto Cultural Cabanas. Most of the main attractions in town are located near this area.
The Cathedral dominates one side of the Plaza de Armas, a lovely square whose bandstand is the scene of frequent evening concerts. Its twin towers with yellow-tiled roofs are distinctive and the altarpieces inside are striking. On another side of the square is the Palacio de Gobierno, which boasts murals by one of Mexico’s foremost muralists, Jose Clemente Orozco.
To the east is the elegant Teatro Degollada, which is patterned after Milan’s La Scala. At the eastern end of the pedestrian area is a former orphanage, the Hospicio Cabanas which has been transformed into a cultural arts center. It is now known as the Instituto Cultural Cabanas and is notable not only for it exhibitions, performances, and as a school for the performing arts, but also for the building itself. It is a Neo-Classic gem of fine architecture and attractive courtyards and also contains additional murals by Orozco.
Two of Guadalajara’s suburbs are worthy of mention because they are significant arts and crafts producers. Tlaquepaque and Tonala have factories and numerous shops to explore.
Those interested in tequila, the distinctly Mexican liquor, may want to travel about 55 kilometers (35 miles) northwest of Guadalajara to the town of Tequila, to visit a distillery and see first-hand how the agave plant is transformed into this ancient (produced since the 10th century) liquor.